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How to Express Present, Past and Future in Chinese? 

 January 19, 2020

By  Vicky Yi

When we learn English verbs, we need to learn verb conjugation for different tenses. For example, the verb “do” can be used as “do - did - done”. However, in Chinese, verbs do not need to be changed, no matter what tense the sentence is.

Sounds great, right? You don’t have to spend time learning dreaded verb-changing rules! But how does the Chinese language express tense? 

You only need to know some time adverbs and aspect particles to help you express past, present or future, completed or ongoing. It might be easier than you think, so, just start to learn with me.

Present Tense in Chinese

The first thing you should know is time adverbs. Some of the words you may have already learned in Tell Time in Chinese Lesson 2.

Commonly Used Time Adverbs for Simple Present Tense

Chinese Characters

Chinese Pinyin

Meanings

经常/常常

jīng cháng/cháng cháng

often, frequently

总是

zǒng shì

always

有时

yǒu shí

sometimes

每天

měi tiān

every day

每(个)周/每(个)星期

měi (gè) zhōu/ měi (gè ) xīng qī

every week

每(个)月

měi (gè) yuè

every month

每年

měi nián

every year

There is one word you should pay attention to, which is “每(měi)”. It means “every” in Chinese. This word is often used in the present tense.

Example Sentences

Chinese Characters

每天8点起床。

Chinese Pinyin

měi tiān bā diǎn qǐ chuáng

Meanings

I get up at 8:00 every day.

Chinese Characters

我的老师经常带我们去公园。

Chinese Pinyin

wǒ de lǎo shī jīng cháng dài wǒ men qù gōng yuán

Meanings

My teacher often take us to the park.

Aspect Particle for Something in Progress

在 (zài) ,正在 (zhèng zài) and 着(zhe) all indicate present continuous tense, which means something is currently still happening. Sometimes “正在” and “着” can be used at the same time.

Example Sentences

Chinese Characters

我(正)在吃饭。

Chinese Pinyin

(zhèng) zài chī fàn

Meanings

I am eating.

Chinese Characters

我们(正)在开会。

Chinese Pinyin

wǒ men (zhèng) zài kāi huì

Meanings

We are having a meeting.

Chinese Characters

她穿一件红色的衣服。

Chinese Pinyin

tā chuān zhe yī jiàn hóng sè de yī fú

Meanings

She is in red.

Chinese Characters

爸爸正(在)电话呢。

Chinese Pinyin

bà ba zhèng (zài)zhe diàn huà ne

Meanings

Father is talking on the phone.

Chinese Time Adverbs for Something in Progress

If you want to express that the action is currently in progress or ongoing, use the following adverbs:

Chines Characters

Chinese Pinyin

Meanings

现在

xiàn zài

now

此刻

cǐ kè

at the moment

目前

mù qián

at present, currently

Sentence Examples

Chinese Characters

现在在学习中文。

Chinese Pinyin

xiàn zài zài xué zhōng wén

Meanings

I am learning Chinese now.

Chinese Characters

此刻你有什么想说的?

Chinese Pinyin

cǐ kè nǐ yǒu shén me xiǎng shuō de?

Meanings

What do you want to say at the moment?

Past Tense in Chinese

Commonly Used Time Adverbs for Past Tense

Unlike English, Chinese people like to place time adverbs at the beginning of a sentence, instead of the end, for most of the time.

Chines Characters

Chinese Pinyin

Meanings

以前

yǐ qián

before

过去

guò qù

in the past

曾经

céng jīng

once

刚刚

gang gāng

just now

刚才

gang cái

few moments ago

……年前

… nián qián

…… years ago

去年

qù nián

last year

……(个)月前

…(gè) yuè qián

…… months ago

上(个)月

shàng (gè) yuè

last month

……(个)周前

…(gè) zhōu qián

…… weeks ago

上(个)周/星期

shàng (gè) zhōu/ xīng qī

last week

……天前

tiān qián

…… days ago

前天

qián tiān

the day before yesterday

昨天

zuó tiān

yesterday

昨晚

zuó wǎn

last night

Example Sentences

Chinese Characters

三年前开始学中文。 

Chinese Pinyin

sān nián qián kāi shǐ xué zhōng wén  

Meanings

I started to learn Chinese 3 years ago.

Chinese Characters

以前是名医生。 

Chinese Pinyin

yǐ qián shì míng yī shēng 

Meanings

I was a doctor before.

Chinese Characters

昨晚我和男朋友去看了电影。 

Chinese Pinyin

zuó wǎn wǒ hé nán péng yǒu qù kàn le diànyǐng 

Meanings

I went to see a movie with my boyfriend last night.

Chinese Characters

上个周我去出差了。 

Chinese Pinyin

shàng gè zhōu wǒ qù chū chāi le 

Meanings

I went on a business trip last week

Aspect Particle for Past Tense

We can add some aspect particle, such as 了 (le) and 过(guò), place it immediately after the verb, to indicate an action is completed or past.

了(le) is used to indicate the completion of an action. In a similar way, 过 (guò) is used to show that something has happened before. And we also can use “…过了 (guò le)” together, to indicate that the status of an action has been completed.

To say that an action has never happened before, negate the verb using 没 (méi) or 没有 (méi yǒu). You can also use the adverb 从来 (cóng lái) which means ‘in the past’ to express something that has never happened.

Besides, the aspect articles can be used both with or without the adverb of time. 

Example Sentences

Chinese Characters

我去长城。 

Chinese Pinyin

wǒ qù guò cháng chéng 

Meanings

I have been to the Great Wall.

Chinese Characters

我们以前见过了 

Chinese Pinyin

wǒ men yǐ qián jiàn guò le

Meanings

We have met before.

Chinese Characters

我们分手 

Chinese Pinyin

wǒmen fēn shǒu le

Meanings

We broke up.

Chinese Characters

汤姆看那本书。 

Chinese Pinyin

Tāng mǔ kàn le nà běn shū 

Meanings

Tom has read that book.

Chinese Characters

今年暑假我没有回家。 

Chinese Pinyin

jīn nián shǔ jià wǒ méi yǒu huí jiā  

Meanings

I didn’t went back home this summer holiday.

Chinese Characters

这是从来没有过的大新闻。 

Chinese Pinyin

zhè shì cóng lái méi yǒu guò de dà xīn wén 

Meanings

This is a big news that has never happened before.

Future Tense in Chinese

Commonly Used Time Adverbs for Future Tense

Some time adverbs in this chart can be paired with the adverbs in past tense part, for easy memorizing, you can match them together.

Chinese Characters

Chinese Pinyin

Meanings

以后

yǐ hòu

afterwards

将来

jiāng lái

in the future

下次

xià cì

next time

待会(儿)

dài huì (er)

after a while

等会(儿)

děng huì (er)

after few moments

……年后

…nián hòu

… years later

明年

míng nián

next year

……(个)月后

…(gè) yuè hòu

…months later

下个月

xià gè yuè

next month

……(个)周/星期后

… (gè) zhōu / xīng qī hòu

… weeks later

下个周/星期

xià gè zhōu / xīng qī

next week

……天后

…tiān hòu

…days later

明天

míng tiān

tomorrow

后天

hòu tiān

the day after tomorrow

明晚

míng wǎn

tomorrow night

Example Sentences

Chinese Characters

下次请早点来。 

Chinese Pinyin

xià cì qǐng zǎo diǎn lái 

Meanings

Please come earlier next time.

Chinese Characters

将来我想给爸妈买个大房子。 

Chinese Pinyin

jiāng lái wǒ xiǎng gěi bà mā mǎi gè dà fáng zi

Meanings

I want to buy a big house for my parents in the future.

Chinese Characters

以后想做一名老师。

Chinese Pinyin

yǐ hòu xiǎng zuò yī míng lǎo shī

Meanings

I want to be a teacher in the future.

Chinese Characters

我妈妈下个月要来看我。

Chinese Pinyin

wǒ mā mā xià gè yuè yào lái kàn wǒ 

Meanings

My mom will come to see me next month.

Aspect Particle for Future Tense

要 (yào), 会(huì) and 将 (jiāng) all indicate an action has not yet happened.

The three auxiliary verbs can be used for talking about the future in the sense of “going to do something” or “intending to do something”. For most of the cases, the differences between these three words are not so distinct, they can substitute each other.

Chinese Characters

Chinese Pinyin

Meanings

Remarks

yào

will / be going to

want/plan/intend

huì

will / be going to

confident prediction something has a high possibility to happen

jiāng

will / be going to

about to happen

And both 不 (bù) and 没 (有) (méi yǒu) are always put before the verb or adjective to express negation. 

Example Sentences

Chinese Characters

走啦! 

Chinese Pinyin

yào zǒu la 

Meanings

I am going to leave!

Chinese Characters

我明天是不会去的。 

Chinese Pinyin

wǒ míng tiān shì bù huì qù de  

Meanings

I won’t go tomorrow.

Chinese Characters

研讨会于下周五举行。 

Chinese Pinyin

yán tǎo huì jiāng yú xià zhōu wǔ jǔ xíng 

Meanings

The seminar will hold on next Friday.

Chinese Characters

你以后不要再迟到了。 

Chinese Pinyin

nǐ yǐ hòu bù yào zài chí dào le 

Meanings

Please don’t be late again in the future.

Chinese Characters

未来,人类灭绝吗? 

Chinese Pinyin

wèi lái, rén lèi huì miè jué ma 

Meanings

Will human beings die out in the future?

A Few Extras

“了”often appear in sentences about the past, but it can also appear with present or future actions. It’s not always a tense marker. This is quite hard to grasp, but try not to overthink it in the early stages. 

Another one you should take note is that “会” “要” “将” these three auxiliary verbs do not always indicate future tense. As always, it depends on the context. One good example is “会” which may also be used as a modal verb “can”.

Keep Practicing…

The best way to learn a language is to keep practicing. You can try to practice these sentences above. Listen to and read as much Chinese as you can (that is nearly always the best thing you can do for your Chinese) and try to speak them out! 

The more you speak, the more opportunity you’ll get to practice them and the more perfect your Chinese will be! If you know any native Chinese-speakers, try and practice what you’ve learned with them.

Good luck and have fun!

Vicky Yi


Vicky Yi is a language enthusiast. She has some experience in teaching Chinese to foreigners. Previously a journalist in one of the most influential press media in China, she now devotes herself into experiencing various cultures and the beautiful world.

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